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How to Write a Literature Review

How to Write a Literature Review

As any student knows, academic essays and research papers are part of the educational curriculum. You create a thesis, defend it using sources, and formulate systematic ideas that surround it. However, unbeknownst to students, they will commonly write other bodies of work known as Literature Reviews.

Table of Contents

Literature Review Definition

As this is a less common type of academic writing, students often ask: “What is a literature review?” According to the definition, this is a body of work that explores various publications within a specific subject area and sometimes within a set timeframe.

This type of writing requires one to read and analyze various sources that relate to a main idea and to present each unique comprehension of the publications. Lastly, a literature review should combine a summary and a synthesis of the documents it is using. A summary is a brief overview of the important information in the publication; a synthesis is a re-organization of the information that gives the writing a new and unique meaning.

The Purpose

The main purpose of a literature review is to summarize and synthesize the ideas created by previous authors, without implementing personal opinions or other additional information.

However, the goal of a lit review is not just to list out summaries of sources; rather, it is to notice a central trend or principle that is seen within all of the publications. Just like a research paper has a thesis that guides it on rails, a literature review has the main organizing principle (MOP).

The goal of this type of academic writing is to identify the MOP and show how it exists in all supporting documents.

Point to include in literature review

Here are some example topics to give one an idea:

  • Exploring racism in To Kill A Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • Isolationism in The Catcher in the Rye, Frankenstein and 1984
  • Understanding Moral Dilemmas in Crime and Punishment, The Scarlet Letter, and The Lifeboat
  • Corruption of Power in Macbeth, All the King's Men and Animal Farm
  • Emotional and Physical survival in Lord of the Flies, Hatchet, and Congo

Literature Review Format & APA

Essay format you use should adhere to the citation style preferred by your instructor. You must seek clarification from your instructor on several other things to establish the desired literature review format.

  1. How many sources should you review and what kind sources should they be (published materials, journal articles, websites)?
  2. What format should you use to cite the sources?
  3. How long should the review be?
  4. Should your review consist of a summary, synthesis, or a personal critique?
  5. Should your review include subheadings or background information on the sources?

If you want to format your paper in APA style, then follow these rules:

  • Include a header at the top of every page (using capital letters). The page header must be a shortened version of your essay title and cannot be more than 50 characters including spacing and punctuation.

  • The title page should include the name of the paper, author’s name and the institutional affiliation. Your title must be typed with upper and lowercase letters centered in the upper part of the page. Try to fit in 12 words avoiding abbreviations and useless words.

Literature Review Outline

As with many other types of academic writing, the outline of a literature review will have a typical intro-body-conclusion style with generally 5 paragraphs overall. Each section of the outline has its own objectives; a literature review outline is slightly different from outlines of other types of essays.



The author's goal in the introduction is to “funnel” the reader towards the MOP (main organizing principle). This means that the information must start from a broad perspective and gradually narrow until reaching the focal point.

Commonly, the author will start by presenting the general concept (Corruption, for example). After the initial presentation, they will narrow the focus towards the MOP by mentioning the criteria used to select the sources of literature (Macbeth, All the King's Men and Animal Farm.) Finally, the introduction will end with a presentation of the MOP that should directly link to all three sources of literature.

Body Paragraphs


Generally, each body paragraph will focus on a specific source of literature, laid out in the essay introduction. As each source has its own perspective on the MOP, it is crucial for the writer to structure the review in the most logically consistent way possible. This means that the writing should either be structured chronologically, thematically or methodologically.

Breaking down the sources based on their date of publishment is a solid way to keep the correct historical timeline. If applied properly, it can present the development of a certain concept over time and provide examples in the form of literature. However, sometimes there are better alternatives we can use to structure the body.

Instead of taking the “timeline approach”, another option can be looking at the link between MOP and source. Sometimes, the main idea will just glare from a piece of literature. Other times, the author may have to seek out examples to prove their point. An experienced writer will usually present their sources by order of strength. For example, in To Kill A Mockingbird, the entire novel was centralized around racism; in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it was one of many themes.

As made obvious by the terminology, this type of structuring focuses on the methods used to present the central concept. For example, George Orwell in 1984 uses the law and order approach and shows the dangers of dystopia to a social species.
In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley exposes the characters physical traits as repulsive and horrifying, forcing him to suffer in an isolated environment. By showcasing the various methods used to portray the MOP, the writer can compare them based on things like Severity, Ethicality, and Overall Impact.



After presenting your findings in the body paragraphs, there are 3 final objectives to complete in the essay conclusion. First, of the author must summarize the findings they have made or in other words, briefly answer the question: “What have you learned?”

After discussing said information, the next step is to present the significance of the information to our current world today. In other words, how can the reader take the information and apply it to today's society. From that point, we finish off with a breadcrumb trail.
As the author, you want to leave the readers’ trail of thought within the actual essay topic. This provides them with means of further investigation, meaning that the reader may consider where the discussion will go next.

Writing Process Tips

  1. Good Sources
    When working on a literature review, the most important thing any writer should keep in mind is to find the best possible sources for their MOP. This means that while doing initial research, 5-10 different options should be selected and filtered through. The stronger a piece of literature showcases the central point, the better the quality of the entire review.

TIP: Find the best sources to help support your argument but make sure you validate their credibility first.

  1. Synthesize The Literature
    Make sure to structure the review in the most effective way possible, whether it be chronologically, thematically or methodologically. Understand what it is exactly you are trying to say, and structure the source comparison accordingly.

  2. Avoid Generalizations
    Remember that each piece of literature will approach the MOP from a different angle. As the author, make sure to clearly present the contrasts in approach and don’t include general statements that offer no value.

Literature review to do

Literature Review Examples

You can find two well-written literature reviews by the EssayPro writing team below. They will help you understand what the final product should ideally look like.

The first literature review compares monolingual and bilingual language acquisition skills and uses various sources to prove its point. The second literature review compares the impact of fear and pain on a protagonists overall development in various settings. Both reviews will help you sharpen your skills and provide good guidelines for writing high-quality papers!

Native Language, and Its Acquisition Within a Bilingual

Review of "How to Tell a True War Story," "You Survived the War, Now Survive the Homecoming" and "The Train"

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